Bushwhacking Catfish

by Jeffrey Miller

Hiking deep for catfish holes

A long hike through the prairie brought us to a great catfish hole. Bob Miller was rewarded with a 12-pound channel he caught off the bank.

Catfish have long been caught by fisherman without access to a boat. As a kid growing up in southcentral Minnesota, I remember seeing catfishermen (and women) dozing on the sandbars of the Minnesota River, their fishing poles resting in a Y-forked stick. Photos published in the local newspaper of huge flathead catfish testified to their effectiveness.

While I often fish out of my small Jon boat on the prairie river near my home in North Dakota, sometimes it’s best to hitch up the shank’s mare and hike deep for a chance at the quality fishing locations. Like many small rivers, my home river lacks boat access points. To catch a stringer full of eating cats, along with a chance at a big fish, I will often leave my boat in the driveway and strike out on foot.

 

Beginning Bushwhacking

Before I ever leave my house, I will pull up Google Earth imagery of the area I wish to fish. My home river has loads of curves and bends, is quite narrow, and possess many deep holes and snags. By studying imagery, I can pick out a few locations to target. When hiking far from my pickup, I prefer to have a destination in mind. Walking off into the wild blue yonder, without a plan, is many times a fool’s errand. Like most fisherman, I have limited time to fish, and I want to high-grade my outings for success.

I’m looking for deep outside holes that remain consistent year-to-year, as well as areas that pile up debris from each Spring high water event. Next, I determine if the target locations exist on land with public or private access. Most game and fish departments offer Google Earth layers with public boundaries, making it easy to determine land open to all. If my locations are on public land, I only need to find places to park my rig. If the best bends and holes are located on private land, a phone call or visit to the landowner’s residence often results in permission to fish. At least in my neck of the woods, landowners rarely care if a person wants to catch some catfish. Of course, whether it’s private or public land, make sure to leave no trace and clean up any garbage you find on your trek.

Jeffrey Miller earned this nice 11-pound channel cat after a long hike revealed the deep hole in the small river where he caught the fish.

 

Gear for the Bushwhacker

            Overpacking is the biggest bane of the bushwhacking catter. You will be hiking through tall grass, woods, and underbrush, beneath a sweltering summer sun. The last thing a fisherman wants to do is feel like a pack mule, sweating under a load of unnecessary gear. I prefer to fish with a baitcasting outfit, but regardless of rod preference, a fishing rod sleeve is a necessity. The sleeve protects the delicate eyes and tip of the rod, as well as the line. Early in my bushwhacking days I hiked a half-mile through dense woods, only to realize, that upon reaching my destination, my rod was missing the tip. It had caught on one of the myriad of limbs and had broken off. My entire morning was wasted. A sleeve will prevent this.

A lightweight net is needed as well. Trying to drag up the bank, or hand-land a nice fish near the bank, can result in a “one that got away” story rather than a grip-and-grin photo. A net will prevent this.

A tackle bag, with a sling to carry, is my preference to tote my tackle. A few plastic boxes in the bag carry what is needed. I pare down what I carry, as a heavy bag will start to feel like a cinder block on my back after a hike. I prefer to fish with dip bait, and will carry 2 to 3 different brands in the bag, along with the appropriate terminal tackle, tube worms, and bug spray. Finally, a five-gallon pail rounds out my gear. The pail gives me a comfortable place to sit while waiting for a bite, as well as a rudimentary live well if I decide to bring a few cats home for supper.

Even though the summer heat is stifling, bushwhacking is no place for shorts. The woods abound with burning nettles, and jeans and long sleeve shirts will protect skin from the itching and burning. A brimmed hat is also helpful. My hair is rapidly thinning, and without a hat, my head burns to a crisp. Once I’m seated on my pail and ready to fish, I will remove my long sleeve shirt to cool off, replacing it with a tank top from my tackle bag. A thorough spraying with insect repellant will keep the clouds of skeeters at bay.

Fishing with a partner will allow for the work to be spread out. This past summer my significant other, Melanie, experienced her first bushwhacking catfish foray. She carried the rods and the bucket, while I toted the tackle and landing net. She had the hot hand that first trip, catching four fish to every one of mine. The only part of the trip she didn’t care for was her introduction to the boot-sucking mud of the river. I have to admit, seeing her go up to her thighs in the mud was quite entertaining. She quickly learned where to place her feet after that!

“Walking off into the wild blue yonder, without a plan, is many times a fool’s errand.”

Dad’s tussle with a big cat

My Dad, Bob, loves to visit from Minnesota to fish for North Dakota cats. Not caring for my small boat, we will bushwhack on foot far from the nearest gravel road to find fish. A few summers ago, his visit coincided with a hot bite. We targeted a big bend in the river, with plenty of debris to hold numerous cats. To get there, we had to drive across the prairie for a few miles, and then follow a deer trail through the woods to get to our spot. Expecting eating size cats, Dad had only brought a light spinning outfit with 6-pound test. Events that later unfolded made me glad I always tote a net.

The bite started slow, with only a few eater cats hitting the bank. Undaunted, we kept dipping bait and fishing. Dad got into the habit of flipping the fish up the bank, not bothering with the net. Casting near a lone stick in the current seam, the line had barely settled when he felt a tremendous hit. Setting the hook, he let out a whoop. I was fishing 50 feet from him, and knew immediately by the bend in his fishing rod it wasn’t a little fish.

With the light line, Dad was unable to steer the fish much. Luckily, it swam into the current and used up most of its energy fighting there. Soon, the fish was brought near shore, and when it rolled, I knew this wasn’t one that would be flipped on the bank.

The bank had been subject to erosion from Spring flooding, and I had to slide down the clay wall, using Boxelder saplings as handholds. Hitting the edge of the water, my feet started to sink in the mud as I quickly netted the big fish. Hauling myself and the big cat up the bank took some work, but soon we were admiring Dad’s 12-pound channel cat. Had we been fishing the Red River in North Dakota the fish would have been an average fish, but on the small river we were fishing it was a trophy.

A sinuous river has loads of locations to fish. A Google Map can help you find them. This section of the river requires up to a half-mile of hiking through the prairie and woods to reach the best-looking stretches.

Bringing It All Together

Fishing out of a boat and motoring down a gently singing river is a sure-fire way to catch channel catfish. However, the fisherman without a boat or boat access to a river can still catch a mess of eater catfish or a trophy. Bushwhacking back into areas where other fishermen won’t go can yield big returns!

Melanie ponders a prospective fishing hole after toting her fishing gear to the river.

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